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The limits of online learning

Published: February 13, 2013
Section: Opinions


Online higher education in the United States, while growing in influence during the past decade, has attracted considerable controversy. Opponents of online courses have criticized the quality of education they provide. However, online education has significant advantages: it is especially cost-effective and allows for more time flexibility than its in-class counterpart. Historically, it is precisely these qualities that have largely made online courses a for-profit college venture.

But while online courses have been offered by for-profit colleges such as University of Phoenix and Devry University, highly reputable schools are following suit. A recent New York Times article documents the offering of large-scale online courses by many private institutions, including M.I.T., Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. These online courses cannot be taken by the college’s students for credit, but rather are intended for the wider global community. The courses are free and have attracted millions of participants.

These massive open online courses have the potential to greatly benefit both educators and students. For one, these classes can serve as a valuable learning resource for students who benefit minimally from a course instructor, textbook and other traditional learning materials. In this sense, these courses can do for higher education what the Khan Academy has done for primary and secondary education. Furthermore, because the courses are instructed by professors at acclaimed universities, they are especially promising.

Instructors, too, can find the online courses useful in formulating their own courses. Whether adopting the courses’ printed materials or adopting their instruction methods, courses can serve as a valuable tool for instructors, both at the college and high school level. More generally, open courses have the potential to make instruction much more collaborative than it currently is. Instead of instructors independently deciding how to teach a course, they can work with the most popular online lessons to develop their own lesson plans. This could both save instructors time and improve the quality of lessons they administer.

Finally, these classes are perhaps the most beneficial to individuals not enrolled in a degree program. Whether seeking to learn something for a career or future academic endeavor, or simply out of interest, these online courses are ideal because they are free and can be worked around an individual’s schedule.

Needless to say, however, private colleges are not investing in free online courses merely to benefit the public. Many of these courses are offered through third-party companies such as Coursera and Udemy, who ultimately seek to profit from them. They are experimenting with different ways of monetizing the courses, including charging instructors for adopting the course materials in their own lessons and offering students certificates of completion at a price. What’s particularly compelling is that, as noted in The New York Times, some colleges, such as Antioch University, are allowing students to take Coursera classes for credit toward their undergraduate degrees.

While most colleges have limited students’ abilities to gain transfer credit from online courses, as elite universities begin to offer them, this raises the question: Should these online courses be an option for undergraduate students?

Despite the quality of the lesson plans and materials provided by online courses, there are certain benefits to be reaped from in-class instruction that are not possible for online classes. The benefits of a four-year degree go far beyond the content learned in class. For many college classes, especially those in the humanities, class discussion plays an important role in the learning process. While some online courses seek to simulate in-class discussion through discussion forums, teacher input in the discussion is harder to find.

Beyond classroom instruction, being part of a real class allows students one-on-one attention. Students in humanities classes often rely on teacher feedback before and after writing papers, but this type of one-on-one attention is especially useful in classes that involve problem solving, such as math, science and economics. When class lectures and materials aren’t enough to clarify materials for a student, visiting the professor or teaching assistants during office hours can be a vital means of dissolving confusion. Online open courses do not provide this assistance. For-profit colleges have attempted to curb this problem by allowing students to ask questions virtually. It is hard to believe, however, that students receive the same benefit from this form of assistance as they would in a one-on-one meeting with an instructor.

Perhaps the most significant weakness of the online course in the context of an undergraduate education is that it doesn’t allow students to become part of a learning community. A college education is certainly about more than classes and assessments. Interacting and working with others that share common educational interests not only helps students excel, but also realize and grow their interests. Developing the ability to interact with others on work-related matters both inside and outside the classroom is important when those students enter the workforce.

So, while large online courses offered by reputable institutions have the potential to provide society with many benefits, colleges should hesitate before allowing students to take them for credit. Regardless of an online course’s quality, in-class instruction provides students with less obvious learning benefits that cannot easily be realized in an online course.